IT'S not often Ireland can be said to have something in common with that bastion of socialism, Venezuela, but it happened last week. Both nations had a burly, squashed-face man propose changes to how their country was run. In Ireland, Brian Cowen had his budget accepted. In Venezuela, however, Hugo Chavez's plans to reform that country's constitution narrowly lost in a public referendum.
Usually, when the leader of a country loses a crucial referendum, they lie low for a while, licking their wounds, wondering where it all went wrong. Not Chavez. In fact, if there's an opposite of lying low, he did it. He publicly lashed out at those who had opposed him and used offensive language to heap scorn on the opposition's surprise victory. He has vowed to continue to pursue his plans for constitutional reform despite his referendum defeat. In short, this was a man who did not like to lose.
Depending on how you look at it, Chavez is either a trailblazing world leader, adored by leftie celebrities such as Sean Penn and intent on making things better for his poverty-stricken country, or he's a UShating, Iran-supporting demagogue taking the first steps to totalitarianism. Take your pick.
Since coming to power in 1998, he has managed to survive a coup, protests, strikes and a referendum on his leadership, all of which is either testament to his political survival skills or further evidence of how divisive a figure he is.
Born in 1954 to schoolteacher parents, Chavez had originally wanted to be a professional baseball player but instead entered the military when he finished school.
Throughout his time there, he was well-known for his left-wing views, and at one stage formed a secret movement with some of his fellow military officers, named after the South American independence leader Simon Bolivar.
He first tried to take over power in 1992 when he attempted a coup. Venezuela was one of the few countries in South America which had had an unbroken period of democratic government since 1958 but at the time the two main parties were accused of corruption and squandering the country's vast oil wealth. Chavez's 1992 coup failed, however, and 18 people were killed before he gave himself up. He spent two years in a military jail before he was granted a pardon and began making the transition from soldier to politician.
He swept to power in 1998 in the face of mounting frustrations with the ruling party of the time.
Chavez promised a socialist revolution, basing his ideals of democratic socialism on helping the poor . . . and there are a lot of poor in Venezuela. His policy focus throughout his presidency has been on free healthcare and education, subsidised food and land reform.
His supporters call themselves 'Chavistas'. The opposition call it demagogy. His critics note the increased state interest in business and say he is emulating the communism of Fidel Castro's Cuba.
Chavez loyalists control large chunks of the National Assembly, Supreme Court and almost every state government. Much of the criticism over his planned consti- tutional reforms was based on the belief that steps such as abolishing term limits for the presidency were the first step down the road to dictatorship and totalitarianism.
He has purposefully allied himself with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's Iran and Castro's Cuba, two of the US's biggest enemies. When the media reports any discontent, he generally accuses it of being in the pay of reactionaries.
But his supporters point to the many advances he has made through the innovative approach of spending oil revenues on social programmes for the poor. He has nationalised oil, telephone and electricity companies and strengthened price controls on basic food items such as milk and eggs. Within Venezuela, he is widely admired for refusing to pander to the whims of other, larger countries, most notably the US. He was re-elected for the second time last December, winning a new six-year term with 63% of the vote.
Chavez is a blunt, outspoken and lively politician. Like Castro, he is fond of flowery, rhetoric-filled speeches which can last hours, often taking place on his weekly live TV show, Hello, President. His theatrics and blunt soundbites have made him well-known; he has variously described George W Bush as an "asshole" and "the devil". He described Condoleezza Rice as "illiterate" and suggested she is sexually frustrated. He has criticised the country's oil executives as living in "luxury chalets where they perform orgies, drinking whiskey".
A number of left-leaning celebrities have been granted an audience with Chavez, including Kevin Spacey, Sean Penn, Danny Glover and Naomi Campbell. During Campbell's recent visit, a Caracas newspaper reported that she hugged Chavez and declared: "I'm not here to be political."
Up until a few weeks ago, it was widely assumed the reforms proposed in last week's referendum would pass by a wide margin. However, increasing debate over whether the proposals were more focused on allowing Chavez to remain in office for as long as he wanted, and in the manner he wanted, than about reforming the economy . . . coupled with an unexpectedly low turnout from Chavez supporters in the polls . . . saw a shift in the campaign. Many voters and commentators were worried about the scope of the reforms, which included abolishing term limits for leaders and ending the autonomy of the central bank. Other reforms were praised, though, such as lowering the voting age to 16 and banning discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation.
Some of Chavez's other reforms seem bizarre but also practical. He plans to move the clocks in Venezuela forward by half-an-hour to ensure extra sunlight every day to benefit the workers. He has plans to introduce a six-hour working day. His government is intent on leaving a symbolic mark on everything from the country's coat of arms (changed to a left-facing horse) to oil tankers named after historical figures rather than beauty queens.
Chavez said on Friday that he would step down when his term in office expires in 2013, following the defeat of his reform proposals. He is already planning a second attempt at pushing through his plans but, in light of last week's result, he may be in for another battle. In his ongoing quest for what he calls "21st-century socialism", he may just have pushed the Venezuelan people too far.